The New York Wine Industry: Looking Back, Looking Forward

In 1975, New York State was home to only 19 wineries. Today, there are 162, and more than two-thirds of those were created since 1985. About ten new wineries are established each year statewide. What’s going on here?

“A booming wine industry, that’s what!” says Jim Trezise, President of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. I asked Jim to give me his insights as to where the wine business has been and where it’s headed.

The Winemaking Tradition
The Finger Lakes has been the center of the New York wine industry since before the Civil War, beginning in the 1820s when a minister planted native grapes in Hammondsport to make sacramental wine. The late 1800s saw the birth of winemaking giants such as Great Western, Taylor, Widmer, and Gold Seal. These wineries earned an international reputation for their sparkling wines, sweet wines, ports, and sherries, all made from
labrusca grapes.

It wasn’t until Charles Fournier became Gold Seal’s winemaker in 1934 that much thought was given to growing non-native grapes in the Finger Lakes. Fournier began introducing French-American hybrids in 1936, with much success. In 1953, Ukrainian-born Dr. Konstantin Frank was hired at Gold Seal and quickly proved that if vinifera grapes could be grown in the chilly climate of the Soviet Union, they could certainly be grown here.

By 1962, Dr. Frank established his own winery, which unquestionably makes some of the finest wines in the region. In the 1970s, Fournier, committed to the future of vinifera wines, developed the region’s largest vinifera vineyard on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. To this day, these vineyards still produce some of the region’s best white wines.

The Growth of Small Wineries
The first real break for small wineries came in 1976 with the Farm Winery Act. This legislation stimulated the growth of small wineries by allowing them to sell directly to consumers, retailers, and restaurants. Prior to this act, winemakers could sell only through wholesalers.

Trezise explains that even after the Farm Winery Act, the success of the wine industry was, in many ways, failure-driven. “It was the failure of large wine manufacturers to support the local grape industry that prompted many grape growers to become vintners. Corporate takeovers of the large wineries, such as Taylor and Widmer, caused the prices offered to grape growers to plummet. Many growers decided to take the plunge and try making wine.”

More and more, the wine industry is success-driven. Further legislation in the mid-1980s expanded the marketing opportunities for New York State wines. 1985 also saw the creation of the Wine & Grape Foundation, a private organization dedicated to promoting the wine industry. The Wine & Grape Foundation makes sure that folks in Albany see just how fast this industry is growing and works on legislation for further expansion.

“There really aren’t any Finger Lakes wineries that are doing poorly,” claims Trezise. So what is it that contributes to this success?

The Cooperative Spirit
A key reason why the wineries are doing so well is that they work cooperatively together. Trezise says that the wine trail programs focus on increasing tourism to the area rather than fostering competition. “We’re seeing tourism grow by about 50 percent per year. In fact, there are eight times as many tourists coming to the Finger Lakes as there were 15 years ago.”

Most wineries help out fledgling wineries rather than compete against them. Especially when it comes to winemaking, experienced vintners are invaluable to start-up ventures. “The way they see it, established winemakers would rather promote the excellence of Finger Lakes wines. The last thing they want is one ‘bad apple’ spoiling the reputation of the area,” explains Trezise.

The Cornell Connection
“Cornell has been instrumental in supporting the wine industry,” says Nathan Rudgers, Commissioner of Agriculture for New York State in Albany. Not only does the wine lab at the Cornell-affiliated Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva provide quality control testing for local grape growers, it continues to develop outstanding vinifera and hybrid plantings well-suited to the Finger Lakes climate. The “Ag Station” is one of only two locations in the country that can accept foreign grape vines for replant-ing and research.

Rudgers describes an exciting new four-year program to be offered at Cornell: a baccalaureate degree in viticulture (the study of grapes) and enology (the study of wine). “This program will be a huge boost to the industry,” explains Rudgers, “because now we’ll be training young people with the skills needed for the future growth of the wine industry.” It’s expected that the Cornell program will rival a similar one at the University of California, Davis in terms of quality.

The Land and the Lakes
Another reason that the wineries are thriving in the Finger Lakes is the unique and diverse soils that surround the lakes. Southern areas tend to have heavier, clay soils that are not as well-drained; northern soils have a higher pH and better drainage. Such soils foster microclimates that enable winemakers to produce wines with subtle and complementary differences in taste.

The moderating effect of the lakes themselves have long been recognized as one of the cherished aspects of Finger Lakes wine country. The lake water keeps the surrounding land a bit warmer in the winter, allowing grape growers to cultivate the vinifera varieties that favor more moderate climates. At the same time, the “bite” of winter is what helps give Riesling its unique fresh taste.

The People
One important reason for the growth in the wine industry has been the people dedicated to making it work. “The Finger Lakes boasts some very fine entrepreneurs,” says Rudgers. “They saw the potential for growing grapes other than labrusca, the traditional type of grape associated with New York State.”

Indeed, one of those early entrepreneurs is Bill Wagner of Wagner Winery on Seneca Lake. Wagner grew grapes for Taylor from the early ’50s until the Farm Winery Act was passed. As with many grape growers, he worked to improve the quality of his grapes through advanced techniques in trellising, fruit thinning, and mulching.

“We had our first crush in ’78 and officially opened for business in June of ’79,” says Wagner. “Since then, we’ve added a café and a micro-brewery.” He’s found that by diversifying what he offers at the winery, he wins the business of more tourists.

“It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t find a decent place to eat between Geneva and Watkins Glen,” he explains. “If people wanted to tour the wineries, they had to bring picnic lunches with them. That’s how we got the idea for the Ginny Lee Café.”

Wagner found that moving into the beer business has involved a big investment in high-quality equipment. “It’s the only way to keep the quality of the beer consistent,” he says. “We don’t grow the grain or hops needed to make beer, since hops, in particular, are prone to mildew, but we do have a few hops planted nearby just for show.”

Wagner credits local banks with being willing to work with growers. “Some of the banks actually specialize in supporting the wineries,” he explains. “That boost of capital is just what many of them need to keep a good enterprise going.”

The Challenges
The most recent challenge to the wine industry has been passing legislation that allows consumers to purchase New York wines from out of state. “We have more than a million visitors from outside the state each year, but they cannot buy their favorite wines except at the wineries. We predict that the wine industry could easily grow by 20 percent if the wineries could sell their wines out of state,” says Trezise. “This is something that California wineries have been able to do for years.”

Another challenge for local grape growers is making the transition from growing grapes to becoming vintners. “Having expertise in growing grapes is invaluable in this climate,” explains Trezise. “Most winemakers agree that the best wines are grown in the vineyard. Grape growers know which grapes grow well, which can be made into good wine, and how to keep quality consistent.”

What they may need to bone up on is how to market wines, something that comes with experience in running a retail outlet. Part of the challenge is finding the right mix of wine types. Wines made from vinifera and hybrid grapes usually appeal to regular wine drinkers and those who enjoy wine with food. Wines made from labrusca grapes tend to be sweeter and are better for sipping and for those just beginning to explore the world of wine. Offering a diversity of wines is key to running a winery with broad tourist appeal.

Rudgers feels that the wineries need to overcome the perception that the Finger Lakes area produces only sweet, labrusca wines. “It’s only logical that people recall the time when labrusca wines were all that there was in the Finger Lakes,” says Rudgers, “but that’s hardly true anymore. We produce dozens of award-winning wines every year and they’re only getting better.”

The New York Market
One of the biggest challenges is getting restaurants to place New York wines at the top of their wine lists. “It amazes me that you can visit local restaurants and turn three pages before you see a New York wine listed,” says Trezise. This is especially true in New York City.

The New York Cuisine Program, now in its second year, is an attempt to remedy that situation. Last year, shortly after September 11th, several New York chefs came up with fixed price menus, in which a selection of entrees were created entirely from New York products and served with New York wines. The program hopes to raise awareness in the most competitive of wine markets – New York City – that the state offers an outstanding array of fine foods and wine.

This year, you can expect to see as many as 40 New York restaurants participating in the program during the month of September. Planning a fall trip to New York? Check out www.nywine.com/index.asp for details.


by Joy Underhill
Joy Underhill is a freelance magazine and business writer who lives in Farmington. You can reach her at (585) 742-1388 or joyhill@rochester.rr.com.